ST. PHILIP, Barbados - George Washington slept here.
Among the hundreds of markers that make that claim, one of the most curious is here on Barbados - the easternmost Caribbean island, off the coast of Venezuela - which Washington visited in 1751.
He apparently enjoyed his stay, despite a bout of smallpox, writing in his diary: "In the cool of the evening we rode in the country and were perfectly enraptured with the beautiful scenery which every side presented our view. The fields of cane, corn, fruit trees in a delightful green."
It took Washington, then 19, six weeks to sail from Virginia with his half-brother Lawrence, who was ailing with tuberculosis. Lawrence hoped the tropical air would be restorative.
It took me and my wife, a somewhat older couple, five hours on a direct flight from New York for our first visit here. Unlike George and Lawrence, who came for recuperation, we - along with friends from London - came for the sun and rum.
The future first president of the United States rode around the island on a horse; we rented a car. A guide booklet for tourists noted that license plates with an "H" identify visiting drivers, and that "locals are usually accommodating of your confusion and make allowances."
The island is 166 square miles, about 21/2 times the size of Washington and about as difficult to get around by car, with driving on the left (Barbados was a British possession until independence in 1966) and numerous roundabouts to negotiate.
It is a relatively flat island, with green hills rising gently inland and stunning vistas on the coasts - the Caribbean in the west, the Atlantic in the east. The scenic beauty of the island was the inspiration for the Alec Waugh novel Island in the Sun, which was made into a movie starring James Mason in 1957 and partly filmed here.
Frequent sights while driving around the island are "rum shops," combination bars and general stores that often serve as gathering places for local Bajans, as the residents are called. It is said that there are as many rum shops as there are churches in Barbados, and there are a lot of churches. The rum shops are the best places to sample local food and drink, watch a game of dominoes, or just get to know the friendly and hospitable Bajans.
Cricket fields abound, as do chattel houses, especially on the lesser roadways. The chattel houses are small wooden homes set on blocks rather than on more permanent foundations. Chattel means movable property. Historically, in plantation days, workers did not own the land their houses were set on, so they built them to enable an entire house to be moved quickly in case of a landlord or employer dispute.
A few of the houses now serve as stores, selling T-shirts, beach ware, and gifts in Chattel Village, in Holetown on the southeast coast. Holetown apparently got its name from the offloading of ships in the small channel nearby. It's where the English first landed in Barbados in 1625.
We lunched there, at a beachside restaurant aptly named Beach House, dining on fish, chicken, and rum, the island drink, usually served with fruit juice as a rum punch.
On one rainy day, we headed for Bridgetown, the island's capital, on the southwest coast, and stopped at the Waterfront Cafe for a lunch of flying fish, the national fish. (They don't really fly, but they do make Olympian, gliding leaps out of the warm Caribbean waters to escape predators.)
Not far from Bridgetown are the George Washington House, restored as a heritage site, and the Mount Gay Rum visitors center on the northern edge of the capital (the working distillery is on another part of the island). The rum is made from local sugar cane, still the island's biggest product for export and local consumption, although tourism and manufacturing have surpassed the sugar industry in economic importance.
On the rugged and less populated east coast of the island is the strikingly beautiful fishing village of Bathsheba, with white sand beaches stretching across a coastline of rock formations shaped by erosion. A lunch at the Round House provided a wonderful view of the ocean and the surfers. Bathsheba is a popular spot for surfers and for Bajans, who frequently weekend there in seaside cottages along the shore.
We ventured into the town of Oistins for its famous Friday night fish fry along the shore. Choices included kingfish, swordfish, dorado (called dolphin fish here), and flying fish, with cou-cou (made of corn meal and okra) or macaroni pie. Dinner cost about $8 per person.
Since this is a tropical Caribbean island, sightseeing generally took a backseat to enjoying its more alluring features - sun, surf, and sand, all in abundance - while sailing, fishing, surfing, and swimming.
No wonder Washington slept here.
American Airlines flies to Bridgetown from Philadelphia with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $626.
American and JetBlue fly nonstop from New York's JFK; the lowest recent round-trip fare was about $406.
Washington slept here
The historic house where George and Lawrence Washington stayed is in St. Michael, Bush Hill, in the Garrison historic district.
Hours: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday.
Admission: Adults, $10; children 5-12, $2.50; under 5, free.
Barbados Tourism Authority